Hocus Pocus 2 review: back in the corset

The witches are back in this predictable but still fun sequel to 1993's Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus 2 is out at last on Disney+, which means 90s Halloween icons Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker are back to frighten children and belt their hearts out in dollar-store gothic skirts and corsets.

But first, a quick recap of Hocus Pocus if you’ve forgotten: The Sanderson Sisters, Winifred (Midler), Mary (Najimy) and Sarah (Jessica Parker), are infamous witches from 1600s Salem. Though they were hanged in the witch trials, there is a curse that can revive them if a virgin lights a black-flame candle on Halloween eve.

Flash forward to 1993, where exactly that happens, and the Sandersons are reborn – and begin their hunt for children to eat so that they may never age. Campy hijinks ensue, including a typically Doug Jones-esque performance from, well, Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson the zombie, a sentient skin-bound spell book, and a rousing rendition of I Put A Spell On You. Alas, despite their efforts to combat the inevitability of death, the Sandersons are eventually vanquished by a team of meddling teens. Fade to black.

Several possibilities for a sequel have been teased since. I can’t count the number of times a hoax Hocus Pocus 2 ‘official poster’ has gone viral, and then quickly disappeared once people discovered the ruse. I was skeptical in more ways than one when Hocus Pocus 2 finally happened. I love the original for the over the top mess that it is, but it can be hard to capture that vibe again when the film has built such a following and raised expectations sky-high.

Back to the beginning

The film begins with an interesting idea: we see the Sanderson sisters as teenagers, battling the patriarchy and the witch-hunts in Salem. This gives a chance for three new actors to take on the iconic roles: Taylor Henderson as Young Winifred (complete with blown-out perm and buck teeth), Nina Kitchen as Young Mary, and Juju Journey Brener as Young Sarah, all of whom do as excellent a job of chewing the scenery as their older counterparts.

This opening sequence also firmly cements the feminist ‘sisterhood’ theme of the sequel, by centring Winifred’s motivation for becoming a witch as something that will save her and her sisters from the shackles of marriage at 16.

After the titles are shown, we cut to modern-day Salem, where besties Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) are preparing for their annual Halloween birthday ritual – and dealing with a recent fallout with their friend Cassie (Lilia Buckingham). The three of them used to be close, just like sisters, before a boy came along and changed their dynamic dramatically.

It’s an obvious choice for a Hocus Pocus in the modern era, and it is not subtle – but then again, when was Hocus Pocus ever subtle? This is the mid-day pantomime of movies, and unless you’re a heartless crank you’ll definitely feel those warm fuzzy feelings of simple, commit-to-the-bit entertainment.

The witches are back

When the Sanderson sisters are inevitably revived again by the Becca and Izzy, they announce their arrival loudly with a tear-the-house-down musical number. This is what you’re here for, after all. The choice of song is a witch-ified cover of Elton John’s The Bitch is Back (The Witches are Back, duh), and of course it’s good. We’re talking about Bette Midler here, people!

As the ageing divas shimmy about the forest, Izzy wonders aloud: ‘who are they performing for?’ Ah, so we’re self aware. I think I just got pantomime bingo!

What do they want? To eat children. Again. When do they want it? Now, before the sunrise turns them into ash. Again. Doug Jones is doing Doug Jones. Again. It’s the same set up, the same inciting incident, the same bold character choices from the witches. But goddamn it’s fun. As such a fan of the original, I found it really hard to take off my rose-tinted glasses and analyse the film objectively.

There are some updates: Mary rides two roombas instead of a vacuum cleaner. Hilarious, especially when they grow a mind of their own and begin eating stuff off the ground like rats. ‘Potions’ become ‘lotions’ when Becca and Izzy trick the sisters into raiding the beauty section of a pharmacy instead of hunting children.

And Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale plays two characters: the misogynistic reverend from the Salem of yore, and the Mayor of the modern city. His shtick for almost the entire movie is ‘man who is obsessed with bespoke toffee apples to the point of being blind to all hijinks around him’. It’s silly, and it works.

The magical other

Here’s what misses the mark for me: Becca and Izzy’s local supplier of magickal wares is an African-American man named Gilbert, who runs a store in what was formerly the Sanderson’s cottage. It’s revealed that Gilbert was present on the night the Sandersons were resurrected in 1993, and also saw them vanquished. Since then, he’s idolised the sisters, and has been working towards becoming a witch himself.

I thought this choice came dangerously close to Hollywood’s tired ‘Magical Negro‘ trope (also called the Magical Other in literature). Gilbert, the only Black man in the film, gives all the exposition to the leads, and supplies them with the black-flame candle needed to complete their ritual. He’s also the comic relief. The racist stereotyping is narrowly dodged (or at least partially mitigated) by the fact that both leading ladies are women of colour, and not white-saviour types.

The rest of the movie is a fun, carefree romp through our collective nostalgia, and while it doesn’t say anything new or bring in big surprises, it’s certainly a fine choice for a popcorn flick.

Hocus Pocus 2 is currently streaming on Disney+.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports